Fun and games with Robert Maxwell

It seems there’s been a bit of a revival of interest in seldom-mourned publishing mogul Robert Maxwell, with podcasts, books and proposed TV serials – all sparked I assume by my recent, magisterial survey of his fateful libel battle with Private Eye. (Though his errant youngest offspring and the forthcoming thirtieth anniversary of his watery demise might also have something to do with it.)

Most of this will – correctly – focus on Cap’n Bob’s business outrages and all-round daughter-spoiling personal egregiousness. But it is not the full story. At the time, Maxwell’s fame, or at least notoriety, was based on something else – his uncanny ability to insert himself, unbidden, into aspects of public life where it seemed there was no room for his ample frame.

There was an early sign of this in 1968, when as an MP whose achievements were as scant as his flair for self-publicity was prolific, he tried to hijack the Harold Wilson-backed I’m Backing Britain campaign. Later, at the height of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, the Maxwell-led ‘Mirror mercy mission’ managed to inject farce into tragedy.

The epitome of this desire to be seen as the altruistic saviour riding to the nation’s rescue surrounded the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

The Scottish capital had staged the 1970 event – the first after its renaming from ‘British Empire and Commonwealth Games’ – with some success. Perhaps ominously, though, the city was the only bidder for the Games’ next return to the UK sixteen years later (despite some initial interest from the sporting mecca of all our hearts, Milton Keynes). Being able to reuse venues built for the 1970 event, meant Edinburgh could bring in the Games for just £14m, a fraction of the £340m invested by Los Angeles in the 1984 Olympics.

However, as the Games approached, it turned out even the relatively modest financial goals for Edinburgh was not being met. Government support was out, Margaret Thatcher’s allergy to public subsidy having been clear even before LA proved a multi-sports event could be made profitable with private investment rather than state assistance. In fact, Thatcher would not even put in a word on behalf of the Games to potential sponsors, writing: ‘I am not going to sign letters asking for money. The organisers must do that.’

Edinburgh’s organising committee itself, led by local worthy and former Lord Provost Ken Borthwick, were very much gentlemen rather than players when it came to sourcing the commercial backing needed to pay their way, meaning a Games-threatening £5m hole in their finances less than two months before the opening ceremony – the BBC having paid £500,000 for rights that were probably worth three times that amount for starters.

The old-school Edinburgh establishment types on Borthwick’s committee did not commend themselves to either the city’s left-wing council or the country’s not-so-left-wing government. When Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind dismissed any hope of a bail-out, Borthwick tried one last tactic, sending begging letters to thirty-seven wealthy individuals whose names he reputedly took from the Financial Times[*] and – obviously, since this piece is about him – he received a hopeful reply from Mirror Group supremo Maxwell.

Maxwell had actually turned down requests for sponsorship the previous year, but things looked different in 1986. He had just come through an industrial dispute at his Scottish papers the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, and although he had won, it had rather been at the expense of his public image north of the border. Now here was his chance to be the philanthropic hero.

On 19 June with four weeks to spare, Maxwell was revealed as Edinburgh’s white knight. The Mirror proudly splashed: ‘Mirror saves the Games’. And the Record proudly splashed: ‘Record saves the Games’. Both were spiritual typos; both meant Maxwell. ‘I guarantee unconditionally that the Games will go ahead,’ he told a press conference. ‘There will be no deficit at all.’

If Robert Maxwell making a promise about deficits has rung alarm bells, then it won’t surprise you to discover it wasn’t him that was personally pledging to cover it. Yet by 18 July, with a week to spare, he claimed sponsorship and donations (plus a gala luncheon starring Ted ‘3-2-1’ Rogers) had raised the missing cash: ‘When it comes to elbow-twisting on a major scale, I am particularly good at it,’ Maxwell told the press, hinting – though not quite explicitly saying – that £1m had come from the Mirror Group. ‘The job is virtually done.’

Two days later, the story was changing. No multi-sports jamboree of the 1980s was complete without a widespread boycott and the Edinburgh Games were no exception. The British government’s scepticism about sanctions on apartheid South Africa led to Nigeria and Ghana announcing their desire to pull out, followed by most other African nations as well as the likes of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Cyprus and the various countries of the West Indies.

‘These are not Mrs Thatcher’s Games,’ pleaded Maxwell. ‘They are the Games of more than fifty nations, bound together only by history and friendship.’ An excuse was even found to exclude naturalised South Africans Zola Budd and Annette Cowley from the England team, but to no avail – thirty-two of the fifty-nine eligible countries pulled out, not only tarnishing the event’s self-image as the Friendly Games, but also removing many of the most credible competitors from key sports.[†]

Two days after saying the job was virtually done, Maxwell announced that the boycott had returned the deficit to £2m, and a bail-out from the government and local council was now a necessity, though he also suggested he might bill the boycotting nations for the lost money. None of those pleas worked, but the Games still began the following week.

Maxwell had been quite clear about one thing when he first introduced himself as Edinburgh’s saviour, firmly rejecting ‘nonsense about my being in this business to hijack the Games for the benefit of the Daily Mirror … or that I or any of my family will be handing out medals’. Needless to say, from the outset the Mirror and Record logos were prominent in the various venues, and even more ubiquitous was the figure of Maxwell himself, not least when it was he that draped the gold around the neck of the highest-profile winner of the fortnight, decathlete Daley Thompson.

The Queen had James Bond to accompany her to the opening of the London 2012 Olympics; for the more spartan closing ceremony in Edinburgh thirty-six years earlier, the Head of the Commonwealth was accompanied on the dais for the parade by Maxwell – apart from when he rushed on to the track to attempt to replace a Saltire that had blown off the pole of Scotland flag-bearer and wrestling silver-medallist Albert Patrick. The BBC coverage even cut away while the Saviour of the Games was drawing the ‘Save the Games’ competition winner. ‘Immediately after the tombola drum and the Maxwell entourage had departed, normal service was resumed,’ noted a book on the event.

More normal service for Maxwell observers was resumed when he announced not long after the Games ended that in fact the deficit was back to £4m and the organising company had been technically bankrupt throughout. One minister was quoted in the press as saying: ‘If Mr Maxwell is really concerned about his creditors, he and his Mirror Group should make good the losses in recognition of the publicity he’s got. It’s a flea bite to him.’

Indeed, Maxwell’s company accountants Cooper & Lybrand had told him that a £4.3m contribution ‘would produce a significant commercial advantage to yourself’. Instead, late in the Games, war hero Captain Maxwell MC turned to Ryōichi Sasakawa, a man who in 1945 had been arrested and interned for three years by the Allies ‘for leading campaigns instigating aggression, nationalism and hostility against the United States. And … his continued vigorous activities in an organization that strongly impedes the development of democracy in Japan’. Happily he managed to avoid prosecution and subsequently became a successful businessman and sporting philanthropist.

Maxwell said Sasakawa had given away $12 billion via his foundation and that his contribution was to be £1.3m, the rest of the deficit being met by £700,000 from the Mirror supremo, the unilateral rejection of various bills from Games contractors and, crucially, £1m from the government. However, Thatcher repeated her firm opposition to any public subsidy for the losses, and the debts remained.

By November 1986, the Mirror Group (maybe flush with some Private Eye libel proceeds) pledged £2m to sort everything out and Maxwell wrote to the Prime Minister: ‘Though I did not like it at the time, I must tell you I admired the way you stuck to your guns in refusing to allow the use of Central Government funds to help with our deficit.’

A cautious Thatcher responded that it was ‘too early for congratulations’, and so it proved. At most, Maxwell and his companies had put in £250,000 (and perhaps substantially less) and the City of Edinburgh was left carrying the can and having to pay off local businesses as best it could. It finally cleared the close to £5m debts (with interest) in 1989.

As history records, this was not the last time public funds would be needed to sort out a mess left behind by Robert Maxwell, and the amount of money was a drop in the Mediterranean compared to the liabilities to come. And when tales of Ghislane’s daddy are told and retold in a year in which his family return to prominence, and fresh notoriety, the low farce of the 1986 Commonwealth Games will not even be among the footnotes.

Yet, whatever the truth about the Maxwells and their more sordid or sensational alleged entanglements, this slighter saga deserves an airing, not least to remember why and how he carved out for himself such a place in national life in this period.

Maxwell doubtless craved riches, but it probably wasn’t the money itself so much as the status it conferred. Owning a newspaper was not just about whatever revenue it produced but also how much it could promote Maxwell as a man of affairs, pictured daily with world leaders, royals and celebrities, ideally dispensing wisdom and solving global problems.

That was part of the drive to best his long-term nemesis Rupert Murdoch, which led to the final financial overreach that brought the Maxwell empire crashing down. Sure, he wanted his communications business to eclipse that of the Australian who thwarted his early attempts to newspaper ownership. But also Maxwell craved the influence Murdoch was perceived to hold over prime ministers and presidents – and the man whose last years included setting up the likes of the Gorbachev Maxwell Institute of Technology intended to do so far more prominently than his less extroverted antipodean rival.

A major sporting event, with its flag-waving ceremonies and medal-winning national heroes, was the kind of vehicle Maxwell wanted to drive, as a man who gave his service to his country without thought for the personal cost in cash or time. And, like his Buy British drives or famine relief sprees, once the flashbulbs faded away, it was time to leave his played-with toy on the floor and pick up a new game. In autumn 1986, it was the launch of the London Daily News, the doomed 24-hour rival to the Evening Standard which eventually launched in February 1987 (and closed five months later, the day before the first anniversary of the opening ceremony in Edinburgh).

Maxwell was monstrous, with unhappy and worse consequences for employees, investors, pensioners, family members and even unto the next generation (maybe more). But whether it was the product of his extraordinary journey from obscurity or just a rare personality quirk, it was the blithe way that he was able to move on with a mere shrug, proudly calling another press conference to launch his latest boast, that made him by the end an almost unavoidable presence in public life with few obvious parallels. Though a former Palm Beach neighbour of his daughter might come close.

[*] From Tom Bower’s Maxwell: The Outsider

[†] Exhibit A was boxing, which usually has a strong African contingent at Commonwealth level. In the blue riband Super Heavyweight division, there were just three entrants – England’s James Oyebola, future professional champion Lennox Lewis, at the time representing Canada, and a little-known Welshman named Aneurin Evans, who had been called up at the last moment to at least ensure all three medals could be awarded.
Evans received a bye to the final where he faced the formidable Lewis. ‘He really is out of his depth here,’ BBC commentator Harry Carpenter shuddered as the camera focused on Evans. ‘If I were him, I’d be running for my life.’ Lewis, just as in his later pro career, preferred the sweet science to more bloody brutality and toyed with Evans until the towel was thrown in during the second round. Evans returned to obscurity and Lewis went on become one of the sport’s greats.
Sadly, bronze medallist Oyebola was murdered in 2007 at the age of forty-six, shot in a west London club having come to the aid of bar staff asking customers to observe the then-recent smoking ban


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